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mome interviews - image by john pham
mome interview transcripts
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MOME contributors answer our questions.

Collective: How would you describe MOME? And where do you see it going?

Anders Nilsen: I’d call it an anthology of contemporary alternative or literary comics. I think it has the potential to push the medium, and to push people outside comics to see them differently. I’m not sure it’s doing that, but I think it could.

David Heatley: It's an anthology which is attempting to showcase the new crop of cartoonists who have literary aspirations (as opposed to, say, Kramer's Ergot or The Ganzfeld where the cartoonists have fine art aspirations). I love that Fantagraphics has opened up to publishing people of my generation and I like having a quarterly deadline to produce. I'm sure I wouldn't have done Overpeck in the time I've done it (or at all) if it wasn't for the external pressure. MOME seems to be evolving organically and the quality seems to keep improving, so I hope that continues to be the case.

Jeffrey Brown: I would describe MOME as a regular anthology showcase of relatively up and coming, younger cartoonists. I think it's still early to know where exactly it's going, but I think over time it'll start to develop an identity for itself as a literary journal of sorts.

Martin Cendreda: MOME is like a bunch of cartoonists gathered at a party, all talking about different things. But the party is in the form of a comic anthology. There's funny stuff, serious stuff, experimental stuff. I'm not sure where I see MOME going in the future, it'll differ with each issue, but as long as the work remains solid, like it has been, then I won't worry about it too much.

Paul Hornschemeier: I see it as a housing for a cross-section of today's inventive cartoonists who are primarily concerned with narrative in the medium. There are certainly many innovative people left out of the collective, but I feel it's a decent representation of the various takes on form and style being attempted today. I also think this is, on a more consumption-based level, a vehicle for some of these artists who have little to no exposure to reach a wider audience. As to where I see it going, I'm not sure precisely, beyond continuing that mission... responsibly presenting the developing vocabulary of narrative-driven comics.

Collective: MOME was conceived as a “contemporary literary journal”. Do you think audiences expect the same thing from comic/cartoon stories as they do from prose?

Anders Nilsen: I think they should. Of course, comic artists should, too, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. Also, these days I’m not sure audiences expect that much from prose, either.

Andrice Arp: Most people don’t, possibly because of their erroneous ideas about the limitations of comics, but I don’t think they should anyway; comics is another medium, and as such whatever story you tell is going to have a very different effect to prose, even if it reads like prose in certain ways. There is no reason not to expect the same level of quality, however. The biggest mistake people make is thinking of comics as a genre, or a group of genres, rather than a medium. That’s obviously very limiting. Like prose, comics can be good or bad, and can be tied to a genre or not. The term “literary comics” is sometimes used to distinguish thoughtful, quality comics from the formulaic mainstream product, but I kind of like the idea of “literary comics” describing a certain feel or loose style that some work has… that it’s maybe rooted in a tradition of prose literature, as opposed to other work which owes more to visual art or film, or whatever. That way there’s no value judgement implied by the term “literary”. There is a lot of overlap, though.

David Heatley: I don't know what audiences expect, but there are enough good comics now for discerning readers to be satisfied. Comics at their best get at a place, emotional and aesthetic, that literature and film can't touch. We've come so far around to this view that there's now something of a backlash (of which I feel a part) against terms like “literary comics”. At its most basic level, comics still needs to be a “funny picture” medium. When cartoonists aspire too hard to make “serious literature” it can start to get a little stuffy.

Jeffrey Brown: I think in general, audiences don't know what to expect from comics, unless they're part of the so-called comics community either as creators or regular readers. So, in a way, it's more of what MOME might want them to expect and get out of the books - by presenting it as literary, the readers are clued into the idea of reading it with certain expectations. Which of course would depend on what they expect from something called “literary” or a “journal”.

Martin Cendreda: Prose and comics do very different things, so I would hope that audiences wouldn't expect things from comics that they get from prose, and vice versa. But I like the idea that people are seeing comics on the same level as prose and other forms of literature.

Paul Hornschemeier: I don't think they expect the same thing, but in many cases, I feel this is unfortunate. While I don't think comics should ever turn its collective back on fart jokes or funny animals, there's no reason it can't simultaneously reach the same heights as the prose novel, as poetry. Comics will of course achieve these heights in differing ways and to differing effect, but it's nonetheless a worthwhile pursuit, and one we can certainly obtain. I think as more layered, sophisticated works become more ubiquitous, audiences will come to expect such sophistication, or, at the very least, be ready for it. For many people, seeing a sophisticated comic at this time would be like hearing a Shakespearean soliloquy from a toddler. Staggering and perverse, somehow. Comics is maturing slowly in the public perception, and will soon be able to voice itself well, and be heard equally well.

Collective: Paul Hornschemeier says in MOME 1, “We all have this… need to push comics forward somehow.” How do you feel MOME helps progress comics?

David Heatley: MOME means talented people with little publishing experience have a platform and a printing budget to experiment with story ideas. That's always a good thing. As an artist, I know it makes me work harder than I would on a self-produced mini comic, since the audience is larger and the expectation is higher. I think what Paul is getting at is the sense among a lot of my generation that we're artists first and cartoonists second. We can bring any influence or idea from art or literature into making comics (since the door was opened by Crumb, Clowes, Ware, Panter, etc.). We don't have to “apologize” that we're making comics by using hokey formats reserved for mainstream comic strips, ie, splash panel, gag ending, over-the-top announcer narration, etc.

Jeffrey Brown: For myself, I think MOME is pushing me to create work in different ways, or with different intentions, to most of my previous work. So in a way it's a good place to experiment. I think it can also help push things forward by providing a place for people to see a sampling of new work in a more widely available format.

Martin Cendreda: MOME helps progress comics by showing what the young, up-and-coming cartoonists of today are doing. And hopefully it will influence the cartoonists of the next generation.

Paul Hornschemeier: I feel I'm repeating myself somewhat, but I think MOME updates the dictionary, so to speak. No language is static, and this language of symbols is furiously evolving. MOME provides a regular broadcast of that evolution, dispersing the new symbols, and new uses of those symbols, to the readers and to other artists, thus facilitating further evolution. That probably all sounds a little grandiose, but I think that's the underlying beauty of things like MOME, grandiose or not.

Collective: What strength do you have together in MOME, rather than as individuals publishing alone?

Anders Nilsen: The potential of reaching a wider audience and of working in colour. The possibility that someone will pick the book up having been familiar with one artists work and be exposed to the others.

Andrice Arp: I think any anthology that’s good benefits from the relationships of the stories to each other. When you collect works that complement each other, the individual stories are showcased in a way that enhances them.

David Heatley: The strength is just having access to Fantagraphics' distribution, press, and being associated with their comics heritage. I don't think of us a tight-knit group of artists who are building a new comics aesthetic together. We happen to be in the same book because the publisher got us all together. The comparison to RAW isn't accurate because, in that case, an artist (Spiegelman) who happened to be a brilliant editor was forming a community and personally fostering something new in comics. It's a very different landscape. MOME doesn't need to exist quite as much as RAW did. But it's good that Fanta is looking towards the future instead of mostly preserving the past. We're all young and have published less than established comics figures. For a lot of us, this book is the first time our work will reach a mainstream bookstore, and that's a good thing.

Jeffrey Brown: If one person can bring a reader in because of familiarity with their work, then that reader may discover someone else whose work they didn't know. Because none of us are extremely well known, it's a good way for all of us to build our audiences. I think personally it also pressures me to do better work when my stories are being published next to other stories that are really good. So I feel the need to do better work, so at the least the other artists don't make me look bad.

Martin Cendreda: Publishing together in MOME gives the artists a chance to present the reader a wide spectrum of what comics as a medium can do. You've got funny, serious, experimental all in one book. It also gives the reader exposure to cartoonists they might not have heard of before.

Paul Hornschemeier: The main advantage here, as I see it, is that many of us have slightly different audiences, and that all those audiences meet at this one juncture, that being MOME. That sort of cross-pollination is always a good thing in my opinion.

Collective: What has happened to cause the recent renaissance in alternative comics?

Anders Nilsen: I suppose people of my age who grew up with comics - both mainstream and things like Maus, RAW, Frank Miller and Alan Moore - who are more likely to take comics seriously as artists and as the audience, are now in a position to create and consume. We are defining the culture. As we’ve grown up, comics have too, inevitably. Also, it seems like the culture in general, for a lot of reasons, like MTV and video games, is more visual and less text and idea oriented. For better or (and) worse, that’s good for comics.

David Heatley: It's been a long, gradual and natural change I think. We're no different from any other medium which started as mass entertainment and is now exploring the artistic possibilities of its inherited language. For me the key turning points in comics history were embodied by Herriman, Schulz, Kurtzman, Crumb, Spiegelman, Panter, Ware and Clowes. That's my most stripped-down personal canon. Chris Ware is probably more responsible for comics' recent ascension than anyone else. He's opened up graphic possibilities and introduced new “mechanics” that just didn't exist before him. AND he's always done it at the service of his stories which are steeped in humanity and emotion (not slapstick or vaudeville). It's incredibly rare. Clowes has elevated comic-strip writing to the highest possible art. Panter has pointed the way for bringing mark-making associated with painting into comics. He grinds his “expressive” line work into icons and designs, so they're still readable - an incredibly tricky feat. And he's opened up a new, down-to-earth poetic approach to comics writing, rather than the prose tradition we've always had. I think everyone knows what Herriman, Schulz, Kurtzman, Crumb and Spiegelman have contributed to comics. It's possibly the most exciting time that has ever existed for making comics, with many of the leading practitioners and masters still alive and making work. All the attention is well-deserved. The work is too good to be ignored anymore. And we younger cartoonists benefit from the public's receptiveness.

Jeffrey Brown: I don't think it's a renaissance so much as things reaching a certain breaking point. There's been enough good artists who were willing to make good work without making much money, and now because there's a certain amount of good work that sells, there's money in it, so more people will read and make alternative comics, as well as put money into developing new projects. For example, the major book trade publishers signing cartoonists to book deals.

Martin Cendreda: I'm not sure what the reasons are behind the recent comics renaissance. Just a bunch of people who love comics working things out at the drawing board, or the kitchen table, or the garage-screenprint-room, or wherever they happen to work. Doing it because they love it.

Paul Hornschemeier: It's impossible to pinpoint exactly, and I'm sure it's a nebulous of causation, as is the case with any renaissance. We could point to media coverage of comics, to the world of mini comics (which produced most of the people in MOME), to the conservative administration (history certainly seems to point to conservative rule serving as catalyst for art), etc. I think trying to localize any single reason would be wrongheaded; there are just a lot of variables that have come together to make the situation ripe.

Collective: Is the current rise of comics a fashion? Or do you feel it’s approaching a tipping point where comics will no longer be seen as marginal by mainstream audiences?

David Heatley: I don't think of comics as marginal at all. We're well past that tipping point. Major museum retrospectives, New Yorker extracts, reviews in the NY Times Book Review. All this means we're part of the larger culture. It feels like it's here to stay.

Jeffrey Brown: I think there's still a fashion element, or that comics are seen as hip and trendy. But at the same time there's going to be more work that can penetrate the social consciousness, and comics can make a place for themselves in the mainstream.

Martin Cendreda: I think all the media attention recently given to comics is a fashion, the spotlight is always a cyclical thing. It will probably go away after a while. I'd like to think that it means that comics will be no longer be seen as this marginal art form, but I don't think that will happen. I hate to be cynical, but it's happened before.

Paul Hornschemeier: Probably a bit of both. While I certainly don't see this as a “bubble” that will burst as some might fear, I do think the growth in acceptance will swell to a point then plateau, probably to swell and plateau again later. There is a good amount of intelligent work being produced right now, and I think because of this comics will continue to grow positively in the public/commercial perception, but it's foolish to think this upward growth will be infinite. I doubt that would be possible in any medium, and certainly not one as active (requiring the viewer's constant thought and attention) as comics.

Collective: Would you agree that the term “graphic novel” reveals an embarrassment that some people feel, or felt, about comics? That it’s a term which gentrifies something that doesn’t need gentrifying?

Anders Nilsen: Yeah, probably. There is no good term. But comics is probably marginally preferable. I like being in France, where I get to call them, bande dessinée. It covers the cartoonist cartoons and still manages to sound sophisticated.

Andrice Arp: Yes, and I think the term “graphic novel” only makes sense in its really specific literal meaning, that it’s a novel-length (or at least novella-length) fiction story done as a comic. People have started to use it for all kinds of purposes, from describing a specific visual style to identifying something as more sophisticated than the average comic, to indicating the size of a book — even if it’s an anthology or collection… and the term has become pretty useless.

David Heatley: I like “comics” or “comic book”. I only use “graphic novel” when talking to a layperson when I need shorthand for what I do. It's not a great term, but it's not terrible. It feels like people who are embarrassed by comics are in the minority these days.

Jeffrey Brown: I think it's just about marketing. Personally, I don't care how people refer to my books, or categorize them, as long as people are reading them.

Martin Cendreda: I don't think the term “graphic novel” gives away an embarrassment or a kind of shame people feel about comics, but I do feel that it is a little overly pompous or grandiose. There's nothing wrong with the terms “comics” or “cartoons”, people know exactly what they mean.

Paul Hornschemeier: The term has its faults, and does seem a bit unnecessary, but ultimately it's a name, and names really only take on the significance that people give them. I prefer simply saying “cartoons” or “comics”, but there does need to be (especially commercially) something to differentiate between stapled pamphlet comics and those bound with a spine. “Graphic novel” seems to be putting on a tuxedo where a nice suit would have done just fine, but I'm sure we could have done worse.

Collective: What is it about comics that draws you to them?

Anders Nilsen: That they are inherently lower/middle class. An art object that can be owned by anyone. That they are drawn. I love looking at drawings almost as much as I like making them.

David Heatley: I've always loved them since I was a very young kid. So a lot of my love for the language of comics is nostalgia and familiarity and comfort. What I like about so many of the best artists working now is how quiet their comics can be. They work on you in a very subtle way. The visual impact of film or painting, but with the cerebral, longer-lasting "buzz" of reading a novel. You believe you're watching something happen to you, but you're really actively participating in the illusion and convincing yourself of its effect. I also love that, though comics are linear, they're also non-linear. Meaning, you can hold the entire story beginning to end at once and flip through it very efficiently - replaying favourite parts at will. Finally, they're the most "plastic" of any medium, including film (maybe excluding animation). People get the sense of looking through windows onto different scenes. But what they forget is that every atom of every object of every scene is malleable by the artist: hair, furniture, cars, trees can all be bent and twisted and arranged for compositional purposes or emotional impact. No other art form so fully steeps the viewer in the personal world of the artist.

Jeffrey Brown: I think it's a medium that allows me to more effectively express ideas I have, which I was never able to do in painting or fine art. I like to draw a lot, I like to try and be funny. There's something about comics that really lends itself to a particular kind of comedic timing I like to indulge in.

Martin Cendreda: The visual aspect of comics has always been the main draw for me. There's just something about seeing little drawings in boxes on a page that makes me want to see what the hell is going on in there. Who are all these funny-looking characters and what are they doing here?

Paul Hornschemeier: There is an honesty and immediacy to comics that I find difficult to capture elsewhere. And there is this sort of kinetic quality to those still lines that always creates such a strange tension. I'm not sure that I can fully explain it, but looking at comics has always felt like Christmas morning. They're just exciting. Probably I should see a therapist about this.

Collective: Do you see yourself as a writer or an artist? Or is being a creator of comics something different from both?

Anders Nilsen: Comics is different from being just a writer or just an artist, but I do see myself more as an artist. The story, for me, is just a way to connect the pictures. Almost a way to determine what to draw next. Maybe that’s sort of a lie. I think I see myself less as a writer, because I try to have the story told more (or at least as much) with images as with text or dialogue. To not have the two conveying the same information or simply bolster one another. I’m interested in the way people interpret or experience pictures differently than they do text. Because even if we are getting more visual as a culture, our images are overwhelmingly still mediated and interpreted for us by text. But that’s not really true of the stuff of mine that has appeared in MOME. That material is more text-based, perhaps. Big Questions and Dogs And Water are less so.

Andrice Arp: I think making comics is something different from both, because the whole becomes something more than, and different from, the sum of the parts; when something really works as a comic you don’t notice the writing or the drawing individually, and it reads completely differently from either writing or static visual art. With comics, drawing and planning spatial relationships are really a part of the writing process, so it’s really impossible to just write or just draw. The best comics have the most inextricably integrated writing and drawing. That’s something I aspire to, and I have a long way to go.

David Heatley: It's its own thing entirely. My “writing” often looks like diagrams or lists, because I always have to think in units of panels and pages. Often the writing doesn't get fully finalized until the context is revealed by nailing down the drawing. Depending on the strip, I'm often leading with one or the other. Overpeck feels like it's mostly visually driven. I want to create a sense of a world with a particular mood and the writing enhances that. But Portrait of My Dad and Mom (which I'm working on right now) feels primarily writing-based. The pictures carry the story and move it along, but aren't meant to be studied or “lived in” as much. They're more iconic or diagrammatic.

Jeffrey Brown: I guess I consider myself a writer first, since comics is essentially just a visual language, and the imagery is important to the writing - even in a wordless comic, the images are dictated by the story you're trying to tell.

Martin Cendreda: I don't see myself as either a writer or an artist. A cartoonist is different. I don't know, maybe the bastard offspring of both writing and art. There are aspects of both in a cartoonist, but they are used in totally different ways.

Paul Hornschemeier: More than anything I've been realising I just like to tell stories. So I suppose I see myself as a storyteller. If anything, I err more on the side of being a writer, as I do tend to write prose more often than solely doing art for art's sake. But I think being a creator of comics is certainly being both a writer and an artist, being a designer in the truest sense of the word, inherently.

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MOME 1 and 2, out now published by Fantagraphics.
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